Where have all the linemen gone?

It's scary to consider the Bills' lost two of last year's three starting defensive linemen, yet are going to a 4-3 defense. Where are the extra linemen going to come from?

Buffalo drafted three and brought in two rookie free agents. They have one coming off a military commitment, one who was a practice-squadder and one who's played football for just five years. But maybe experience is overrated. Bill Gates didn't have any experience when he negotiated his sweet software deal with IBM in the ‘70s, which ultimately made him commander of the earth. Football can't be that different.

If it is, however, trouble lurks for Buffalo because only the starting four, and long-term project Leif Larsen, have NFL playing experience. And right end Erik Flowers is still largely questionable. After that, who knows.

Will the Bills overcome lack of experience and depth?

Line coach John Levra feels his young players are talented enough. The last defensive draft pick to make a rookie impact was Antoine Winfield as the nickel back in 1999. Winfield thrived from the beginning, and then he started at the end of the season due to injury. To expect that right away from defensive end Aaron Schobel or nose tackle Ron Edwards would be unrealistic. They may be able to contribute extensively in the second half. Then again, defensive line is a position where players can somewhat rely on their talents to get by, more so than offensive line or free safety. That may work in the rookies' favor. As for Jarrett Procell and Bryce Fisher, the learning curve is not as steep. Both have played in NFL preseason games and garnered experience that way. Procell also spent 2000 on the Bills' practice squad and has been an off-season workout junky.

Can Hansen and Price last the season?

They didn't last year. Both Hansen and Price took turns being hurt. Hansen had surgery in the off-season. Price, whose knee was partially torn, sat out some games and then came back. The Bills decided he was sufficiently healed enough to be re-signed in the off-season.

Despite the injuries, the Bills are counting on Hansen, 33, and Price, 31, to continue the high level of play from the line. Levra said both will be three-down players, though it's hard to believe the Bills will be able to use the duo that much and still consistently get positive production from them throughout the season. Especially Hansen, who's in the final stage of his career.

"I'm going into the season counting on him playing all the time," said Levra, " until I found out he can't."

How will second-round pick Schobel fit in?

Schobel will compete with end Bryce Fisher and perhaps a linebacker to play left end during third down passing situations, which Flowers played last year.

"I see him as a possible starter in the nickel. He's a good outside rusher," said Levra during the June mini-camp. "Without pads on, he's not as successful as he would like in this camp, but when he gets the pads on he can use more of the abilities that he likes to use and more of the techniques. He's got great speed and he's a fierce tough competitor."

Will Fisher make an impact?

Fisher, coming off a two-year commitment to Air Force, now has his real chance to make the Bills. In the off-season, coaches wondered if he could play at tackle, which he was pretty good at in college, earning WAC honors. But during the off-season mini-camps he was backing up at right end because the team needed him there more.

Fisher is a smart, versatile and physical player. He's not a speed rusher such as Schobel or Flowers, which may suit him best inside or at left end.

Will the line rotate?

Levra said there's no choice. Teams need to rotate players along the D-line to keep them fresh. If the Bills find eight players who can play "winning football," they'll rotate eight. If there are only seven, they'll rotate seven. "It's hard to ask a defensive lineman to play the maximum effort the entire game," Levra said, "especially when an offense is in a two-minute drive and they got to rush the passer, hurry back to the line and start all over. Hopefully, we'll develop eight guys."

What's the difference between the 4-3 and 3-4?

Gregg Williams' philosophy is to defend the run with numbers and defend the pass with speed. The Bills will have eight defenders "in the box" all the time, as opposed to seven, which the 3-4 utilized. In the 4-3, the strong safety plays near the line of scrimmage almost like a linebacker. On run downs, the extra man theoretically gives the defense an 8-7 advantage vs. offensive blockers in a standard alignment (five linemen, a tight end and fullback). On passing downs, the idea is to sack the quarterback or give him as little time as possible to throw the football, which will help the defensive backs.

What about Leif?

Larsen is going to have a hard time making the team, especially considering that the rookie tackles, such as Ty Robertson and Ron Edwards are learning more than one position for backup purposes, while Larsen is concentrating on just one, under tackle. And Larsen's not just playing one position because he excels at it either. Larsen needs more time to learn than the Bills are probably willing to pay for.


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